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MO Chief Justice calls on judge candidates to keep campaigns clean

Justice Michael Wolff
Justice Michael Wolff


Jefferson City, Mo – The top judge in Missouri says he hopes candidates seeking judgeships will not to campaign on political or legal issues.

Chief Justice Michael Wolff said Tuesday that the only promises judges should make is to decide their cases fairly and always follow the law. He said unlike political candidates, judges are handcuffed by the law and their opinions on issues don't really matter.

"Be wary of judicial candidates who take positions on issues, because they cannot deliver on their promises," Wolff wrote in a column distributed this week. "Answers to issues questionnaires or any campaign promises are not likely to tell you anything useful about how a judge will decide a case."

Instead, he saysjudges should be evaluated for their character and their legal experience.

The issue of what judges can and should say while on the campaign trail is not new. The Missouri Code of Judicial Ethics once explicitly barred discussion about legal and political issues likely to come before the court.

But in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Republican Party and a three-time judicial candidate and found that a similar Minnesota law violated candidates' free speech rights. Citing the ruling, the Missouri Supreme Court changed the ethics code to allow judges running in partisan elections to say whatever they wanted, while keeping in place the existing prohibitions for retention vote elections unless there is an organized campaign against one of those judges.

While the changes opened the door to discussions about controversial topics such as abortion and the death penalty, the ethics code requires judges who state their opinion on issues to recuse themselves from cases that involve those issues.

Missouri Bar President Doug Copeland said a highly contentious political battle in 2004 between candidates for a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court soured the perception of that state's entire judicial system. In that race, Republican Lloyd Karmeier won the seat.

Copleland says unlike politicians who build a constituency and serve the majority's interest, judges must serve the law and be open-minded something that runs contrary to taking positions on issues while on the campaign trail.

"You need a person that gives everyone their day in court and are totally impartial regardless of who the parties are," Copeland said. "Often you have very unattractive litigants, but a judge needs to sit there as an arbitrator and put the blinders on."

Most of Missouri's judges run under political party labels, just like candidates for most county offices, the Legislature or governor.

The process for selecting appellate courts judges and trial judges in the state's largest metropolitan areas is different. They're appointed by the governor from a pool of three candidates and face a periodic retention election.

Wolff said despite joining a political party and facing the voters, judges are different from other elected officials. He contrasted a lawmaker or governor who is responsible for setting and carrying out public policy decisions to judges who are expected to interpret and apply the law regardless of their opinion of it.

"When an issue comes before a court, do you want your case to be decided by someone who already has announced his or her position on the matter during a campaign? Or would you rather have the opportunity to present the facts, issues and law as you see them before the judge makes a decision?" he wrote.

This fall, 54 circuit judge positions and 157 associate circuit judgeships will be on the ballot of which less than half are contested. An additional 20 judges will face retention votes.


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